TCS Daily

Eyes on the X-Prize

By Rand Simberg - August 15, 2003 12:00 AM

Few countries on the planet have a space program. Those few that do are either one of the two traditional space powers, the United States and Russia (formerly the USSR), or take their technological and programmatic lead from one of those two countries. Which is to say, they all build expendable launch systems (with the dubious exception of the Space Shuttle, which is only partly reusable), usually more or less based on U.S. or Russian designs and concepts.


But why have the Americans and Russians so dominated space programs this way?  In large part because the only available model for a successful space program -- "successful" being defined, in this case, by the minimalist relative definition of being better than having no space program at all -- has been to set up a government agency, give it as much money as it says it needs, make it look like either the U.S.' or USSR's, and hope for the best.


The approaches used presently and, so far, almost universally, were an historically contingent consequence of the early days of the space race, driven by the Cold War and the launch of the Soviet Sputnik. Both the U.S. and USSR were in a rush to get both military and prestige payloads - a.k.a. humans and science probes -- into space, and the fastest way to do this turned out to be to convert existing intercontinental ballistic missiles to launch vehicles.


Even today, while there are vehicles that were developed from the ground up to be launch systems, with no munitions pedigree, the basic design philosophy remains the same -- design them to be as reliable as possible, and hope (or even, anathema to engineers, at least as engineers, pray) that they work, because every flight is both a first flight and a last, and the production quantity is too small to ever get quality under statistical control.


To date, one of the consequences of this is that the only approach taken to space flight the world over (due to the "follow the leader effect" noted above) has been extremely costly, and ridiculously unreliable (which increases costs even further), by the standards of any other form of transportation. The high cost, both to develop and operate such systems, is the main reason that so few other countries are even minimally spacefaring.


Another reason, however, is that this approach also imposes requirements on launch ranges that eliminate the possibility of many nations being able to launch from their own territory. High-tech but geographically disadvantaged Israel is probably the most perverse example of this-in order to avoid overflight of countries to their east, they inefficiently launch their satellites west, into a retrograde (that is, against the direction of the Earth's rotation) orbit, which dramatically reduces the mass of their payloads.


After decades, ruts as deep as this are hard to get out of, but we may be about to do it. With the full funding of the X-Prize, and the emergence of dot-com millionaires' interest in the nascent commercial space transport industry, all that's about to change. We may be on the verge of introducing a disruptive technology, which will have interesting, and possibly unsettling effects on both our economy and national security, and sooner than we think.


The suborbital realm has been largely ignored by the national space programs, other than for the occasional sounding rocket (also expensive because its principles are also derivative from missiles). But if the key to reducing cost is to fly the same vehicle repeatedly (and there's a wealth of analysis to indicate that such is the case), then suborbit is an excellent venue in which to both test the theory, and learn how to operate rocket planes and other space transports routinely. The energy requirements are much less, providing a much more forgiving design envelope, and failure to hit performance targets doesn't result in a mission failure, because any velocity increment below thirty thousand feet per second or so will be classified as suborbital.


Happily, many believe that there is also sufficient market for such vehicles to economically justify their development, which means that the investment funds are starting to flow, for the first time in adequate quantities, from people like Amazon's Jeff Bezos, John Carmack (of "Doom" and "Quake" gaming fame), Paul Allen (or so rumor has it), co-founder of Microsoft, and Dennis Tito, the man who is arguably the world's first man to go into space on his own dime.


If the X-Prize is to be won at all, it will be won by the end of next year, when the funding for it evaporates, which means that serious contenders are getting ready to fly now. And when they do fly, despite the fact that they're not going into orbit, they'll be going into space, making people think about that environment in an entirely new way.


I predict that whoever wins (as well as show, place, and other runners up) will astonish the traditional aerospace industry by not only how quickly the vehicles are developed and tested, and how many diverse ways there are to skin this particular cat, but by how cheaply it is done, confounding conventional space hardware cost-estimating models.


Just as importantly, people will be surprised to see them flown out of places like Burns Flat, Okla., and Mojave, Cal. -- sites nowhere near the traditional government launch ranges at Cape Canaveral or Wallops Island or Vandenberg Air Force Base.


Within a few years of the Wright brothers' first flight a century ago, everyone figured that if a couple bicycle mechanics could do it, so could they, and there was a "Cambrian explosion" of innovative aircraft designs, both in the U.S. and, more importantly, abroad. Many of them were mistakes, but a few good ones survived into the twenties, creating the basis for today's aviation industry.


Once people understand that it's possible to have a space industry without having to go to orbit (at least initially), and one that uses the existing industrial base in many developed and developing countries, with space transports costing little more to develop and operate than high-performance aircraft, we may similarly see many new possibilities open up. This may very well finally break us out of the deep missiley (yes, I know it's not a word, but it should be) rut that we've been in since Sputnik. While it would be foolhardy for me to claim that I've even started to plumb them, it would be even more so for policy makers to deny the possibility and ignore the implications.


I predict that people in countries like India, Israel, and China will take careful note. In fact, countries that currently don't have a space program at all (e.g. Pakistan, Turkey, Czech Republic, Korea) may start one, partly for prestige, but perhaps for more disconcerting purposes as well (low-cost fast strike, anyone?). In fact, they may do this in response to regional competition, e.g., India might initiate such a program after being upstaged by China's upcoming launch of a "Taikonaut" (the westernized Chinese word for astronaut).


I think, by and large, that this will be a good thing, and further foster innovation and reduce costs in this new space industry, but it will also raise new international challenges, and even threats, that will have to be considered, and controlled. Thus, I point this out not as a Chicken Little attempt to throttle this exciting new industry in the cradle - the sky isn't falling, though we are in a very real sense bringing it closer - but to encourage some deep thought as to how to manage the suborbital genie that is already out of the bottle.


Rand Simberg is a consultant and entrepreneur in commercial space, space tourism, and internet security. He publishes a weblog, Transterrestrial Musings.


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